Steps to Fighting Burnout

The general consensus seems to be that there are three steps in fighting against burnout:

1. Determine if it’s self-inflicted.

If you can take some time off, be removed from on-call for a bit, or allow that next task to wait until you become yourself again, do it. Get some sleep and figure out what it will take to remove the strain.

The objective is to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Stop being a hero. There is no benefit if the toll is so great that your personal life and relationships suffer.

Make sure when you aren’t in the office you spend some time doing something completely unrelated to your profession. We are all passionate about what we do, but if your hobby happens to be the same as your job, you may experience burnout much faster.

2. Determine if it’s an external pressure.

  • Management says they need that new feature now.
  • You’re not allowed to fix the technical debt and apply band-aids instead.
  • You’re constantly fighting fires.
  • The only reason everything is working is because you put in too many hours a week.

If these sorts of situations sound familiar and you’re burning out, it’s time for the external factors to change.

Find out what is causing the problem.

Burnout can be caused by mindless repetition and interruptions. Or it can be middle-management setting unrealistic deadlines. Document the causes, then find ways to alleviate them.

Communicate the burnout to people who can help.

Sometimes all it takes is explaining the problem and talking it out with management and coworkers. Middle-management should exist to help specifically with these kinds of problems.

Say “no” to unreasonable requests.

Say “no” if a request is unreasonable, but try to provide feedback in order to prevent the pattern from continuing.

Don’t allow yourself to be talked down when it comes to time estimates. Instead, learn Defense Against the Dark Art of Estimation Bargaining

“Yes, and...”

If “no” doesn’t work, try using the Yes, and... technique in order to emphasize your willingness to work with the requester but also take the opportunity to establish some boundaries and tradeoffs.

For example:

  • “Yes, we’ll make sure Feature X is our top priority, and to accommodate the new timeline we can put Features Y and Z on hold until the next release.”
  • “Yes, we can plan on adding Project X to our responsibilities, and we can take some time to plan the hiring we’ll have to do in order to meet that goal.”

An alternative way of phrasing “Yes, and...” is to say, “You can have everything you want, just not all at once.”

Let it fail.

If your cries for change aren’t working, allow the consequences (downtime, no new features, missed deadlines, etc.) to speak for themselves. If the choice is between your mental health and your work, one of those is going to win (and it needs to be your mental health)! Of course, this point should be considered with caution (don’t be malicious or reckless just to prove a point).

3. Move on (or take a break).

If your organization can’t change enough to help you prevent burnout, it may be time to leave. A recurring point with people who have escaped burnout seems to be “I’m so much happier now that I work for a company that allows me to maintain a good work-life balance.” There’s no guarantee, but at least you can take the opportunity to fairly evaluate a potential job during the interview process.

It may also be better to take a long vacation, far away from emails and business-speak.

A note on preparation.

It’s a really good idea to set aside emergency funds to use in case you have to exercise option 3. Open up a savings account and allocate a percentage of your income towards your potential burnout escape.

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